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Tucson Takes Flight

A silver speck appeared in the Tucson sky early on the afternoon of Sept. 23, 1927.

Slowly approaching from the west, it circled downtown three times before heading southeast to land. Four months after crossing the Atlantic Ocean, youthful Charles Lindbergh came to town in the Spirit of St. Louis.

With the eyes of the nation focused on the Tunney-Dempsey "Long Count" bout, as well as Babe Ruth's pursuit of 60 home runs, Lindbergh was on a whirlwind tour promoting the advantages of commercial aviation. He was visiting Tucson to dedicate the community's new civilian and military airfield, Davis-Monthan.

Named for two local men killed in Army airplane accidents, the D-M landing strip replaced one on South Sixth Avenue. That airport opened in 1919 and was the first municipally owned and operated facility in the United States. With two hangars, and two soldiers stationed there, the runway served about 275 flights per year.

As Tucson grew in the 1920s, community leaders began searching for another site to accommodate larger military aircraft, along with the short-hop commercial flights which were stopping here. With Tucson less than five hours by plane from Los Angeles, the prospects were good for more aviation business.

City leaders acquired two square miles of property from the federal government, cleared and leveled 240 acres of land, erected hangars and built a brick house for military personnel.

Those improvements were in place as bells and car horns loudly greeted Lindbergh. People had flocked to Tucson from all across the Southwest, with an estimated crowd of 20,000 people on hand to welcome the famous flier.

Once on the ground, Lindbergh received a cactus model of his aircraft fashioned by a local florist. He was then whisked off, leaving his historic plane under the protection of African-American soldiers.

After a brief visit to wounded veterans, Lindbergh headed to the University of Arizona football field, where thousands of spectators heard him praise Tucson's aviation foresight while pushing for similar facilities around the country.

Lindbergh next met with numerous dignitaries from Mexico and was honored at a dinner for 400. Once the seven-course meal was finished, Lindbergh formally dedicated the facility.

Lindbergh departed Tucson the next morning, but patrons of Tucson's Opera House on East Congress Street could still see him on the silver screen. The theater had arranged a special showing of a newsreel which depicted his groundbreaking flight from New York to Paris.

That same week, the nearby Lyric Theater showed a soon-to-be-forgotten movie, The Beautiful Cheat. The Temple of Music and Art wouldn't be completed until the following month, and the Fox Theater didn't open until 1930. But the Rialto Theater was trying to match the competition from the Lindbergh film, showing Clara Bow in It. The title described a "magnetic force whose possessor attracts everyone," and for one memorable day in September 1927, Tucson had done just that.

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